Following safe food handling practices could prevent many food-borne illnesses associated with the retail food service setting. Although food service employees are educated about these safe practices, training does not always lead to compliance. If training does not motivate employees to follow these practices, what does? Unfortunately, there is little current data available on this topic, but researchers are working to change that.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2008
Susan Arendt, PhD, RD, LD, and a team of researchers are studying what prompts food service employees to follow safe food handling practices. Once they understand employees’ motivations, they’ll develop tools that will allow supervisors to tap into them.
This study, which began last September, was borne of the researchers’ previous work in this area. Dr. Arendt and her colleagues realized that training, which is often the primary tool used to motivate employees, has limited effect.
“We found that education, or training, certainly translated into knowledge acquisition regarding food safety, but that didn’t necessarily translate into the practice of safe food behaviors,” says Dr. Arendt, assistant professor in apparel, educational studies, and hospitality management at Iowa State University in Ames. “The bottom line was that just because we trained employees, that didn’t mean that they followed up and implemented their training in food service operations.”
In the first part of the three-phase project, Arendt and colleagues have been testing a theoretical model of employee motivation developed in their earlier research.
To test this model, the researchers administered questionnaires to employees attending trade shows nationwide. More than 200 people participated in the pilot test. The researchers hope to test the validated questionnaire on more than 300 participants.
The second phase will start in the fall, when the team will develop educational modules for supervisors and managers. During the third phase, researchers will test the effectiveness of those training modules.
The team will publish their findings after each phase is completed, Dr. Arendt says. “We plan to develop a piece over the next year that will talk about our results in regards to developing and testing the theoretical model.”
Although their research is still in an early stage, the work completed by Dr. Arendt and her colleagues has already underscored the important role played by supervisors in motivating employees. “Our work really revolves around the pivotal role of the supervisor and how important they are in motivating employees to follow safe food handling practices,” Dr. Arendt says.
In fact, their theoretical model highlights six motivational areas for supervisors:
- establishing policy and standards;
- expecting accountability;
- serving as role models;
- controlling, rewarding, or punishing;
- providing training; and
- providing resources (e.g., hand sinks, soap, and towels).
“I think the supervisor—the manager in charge—is a very important individual in making sure things are done properly,” says Richard H. Linton, PhD, professor of food science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Supervisors must constantly observe what is happening, offering a reward to employees who do things right. When employees do things incorrectly, the supervisor should demonstrate the proper technique and explain its importance without demeaning the employee, he says.
Given the changes in American eating habits, this research is critical. “People are eating out more, eating away from home more, and not preparing their own meals,” Dr. Arendt says.
“Contamination by food service employees leading to outbreaks is not uncommon,” she says. “We need to target [those employees] and make sure [they] are following safe food-handling behaviors. Outbreaks are very costly. They’re costly for those affected by the outbreak, they’re costly for the operation, and they’re costly for the employees.”
Until the final results are in from the Iowa State study, what can operations do now to motivate staff? There are several ways to encourage employees to follow safe food handling practices.
Change Corporate Culture
“Changing the corporate culture and changing the culture of employees is the most important thing that can be done to instill these positive behaviors,” Dr. Linton says. “The corporate culture must come out and say ‘making money is important and food quality is important, but food safety is absolutely paramount.’”